What’s the Bigger Picture That AGBell’s Missing With Nyle DiMarco?

The Deaf community’s in a furor over AGBell’s post on Nyle DiMarco (who was the winner of the last America’s Next Top Model season, and also Deaf, and also an astonishingly pretty man).

That post, in turn, was prompted by a Washington Post article, also on Nyle DiMarco, in which he advocates for ASL for d/hh children, calling it “their own language.” Matter of fact, the AGBell article identifies him as a political activist, pointing out that he’s started a foundation dedicated to promoting deaf infants’ access to American Sign Language.

So now that we are all caught up on the drama, here are the snippets that caused the kerfuffle. DISCLAIMER: This is not meant to be an anti-endorsement of AGBell, as I’ve actually found many of their proponents to be quite open-minded. Heck, I attended a Montessori school with their namesake, and there’s been a long-standing partnership between several AGBellers and Cued Speech. On this one, though, AGBell missed the mark.

1. Lip service to viable alternatives.

“The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell), applauds DiMarco’s achievements and recognizes that ASL exists as a communication option for deaf children. However…”

Wince. As a native cuer, this opening strikes a bit too close to the pandering I’ve seen in regards to Cued Speech. “Oh, well, of course Cued Speech is an option, but… [insert spiel about how Our One True Way is so much better].” (D/HH educators, please do take note, and please don’t do this. After the parent/student/child has been around the block a few times, it gets old.)

2. Couched, cagey language. 

“While bilingualism (use of ASL along with spoken language) may be helpful to deaf children who are unable to fully achieve spoken language, a young child whose family desires spoken language often achieves their desired outcome better through a full immersion in spoken language.”

“may be helpful”? “often”? This doesn’t really do wonders for winning credibility among people that you’re purporting to advocate for. Of course a visual language/mode is going to help d/hh children “who are unable to fully achieve spoken language.” Children learn to speak/sign/cue largely through mimicry. It is exceedingly difficult to copy what you can’t clearly access to begin with. Not impossible, but… difficult.

3. Lack of data.

“Deaf children frequently communicate quite well with listening and spoken language alone, and the number of children who have a need for ASL has decreased dramatically.”

Well, hold on. Where are the cites for this? Earlier in the article, AGBell states that 90% of hearing families with d/hh children are opting for listening and spoken language, citing BEGINNINGS for Parents of Children who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in North Carolina. So, my next questions: where and how was this data collected? And could you pretty please link to it?

4. Lack of empathy.

Come to think of it, in writing point 2, I realized that part of the Deaf resistance to AGBell’s stance stems from this seeming lack of acknowledgement for just. how. much. work. goes into a spoken-language-only approach, at least for the folks I know.

Heck, even one of the students that AGBell highlights goes into a lengthy description of the prep work he undergoes for high school and college classes. Which– hey– is life. No right or wrong about it: if that’s what it takes to get him where he wants to be, more power to him. (That said, I do worry a bit about burnout, having been there and done that in my senior year.) But come on, AGBell, don’t you realize that amount of extra work isn’t exactly normal? Maybe not even ideal? At what point do you hit diminishing returns?

5. Sound is put on this odd pedestal. 

“In videos available on AG Bell’s YouTube channel, families share the remarkable abilities of deaf children today—making music, singing songs, and participating fully in sports, theater and more, with wonderful speech and remarkable hearing.”

Look, I enjoy music– heck, I taught myself a few basic piano songs in elementary school– but this is giving off a weird “if you don’t engage in this specific interest, you’re irredeemably missing out” vibe. Plenty of signing d/hh people love music, with or without aids, and plenty of hearing people don’t listen to music regularly, if at all, so I’m pretty sure this is a variation in people-being-people and not so much level of hearing.

Furthermore: as numerous residential school programs and d/hh athletes/performers indicate, sound is not a requirement for being fully involved into extracurricular activities. Yes, when you’ve got a d/hh child in a hearing group, it helps massively– but you know what? So do visual accommodations and learning some kind of visual communication method, even if they’re just made-up signals. Come on, let’s see some middle ground here.

Let’s rephrase this: “In videos available on AG Bell’s YouTube channel, families share the remarkable abilities of blind children today–making art, drawing pictures, and participating fully in sports, theater and more…”

Are you getting why this sounds a bit odd? Am being odd? I mean, I love art, and I draw lots of pretty pictures, but I wouldn’t expect everyone to be into it, nor try to push visually impaired children into taking it up “because you need to SEEEEE.”* **

*If they want to pursue it, that’s one thing. In that case, I’mma be all let’s go find tactile paints or play-dough or whatever and figure out a way to make it work because yay art.

**Yes, I realize this isn’t a perfect analogy because deafness entails a two-pronged challenge– listening and speaking– whereas visual impairment is, well, mostly an eyesight issue, at least in the mainstream hearing world. Visual impairment in the Deaf world, sadly, carries very much the same challenges that d/hh people do in hearing settings, though.


Now, since this is primarily a Cued Speech blog… some cuers have wondered where the hell we fit into all of this. Well, we know ASL isn’t a deaf child’s “natural” language (despite Mr. DiMarco’s word choice), but we don’t neatly fit into AGBell’s box, either.

So, I close with an insightful comment from my friend Benjamin Lachman: “Everyone’s lost their damn minds. Any language can be effective provided it is accessible as early as possible. ASL is effective if there is exposure to fluent signers ASAP. English is effective if there’s auditory feedback and/or visual access (preferably both) as soon as possible. Period. That’s our [cuers] message, in my respectful opinion. Everybody else is just putting their collective feet in their collective mouths.”

 

We Aren’t Outliers

“You had strong family support.”

“You went to a good school.”

“You got lots of one-on-one time, didn’t you?”

“You were exposed to other cuers.”

Sometimes, when I tell others about what Cued Speech had done for me growing up, someone will mention the above, as if those factors somehow negate or diminish Cued Speech’s efficacy. It’s like they’re implying that Cued Speech itself didn’t work, that the other factors had to compensate, or that I was the exception that proved the rule.

It’s true that family and educational support are immensely important, and often if not usually a deciding factor in a child’s success. Home and school are where the child spends most of his time. However, communication access and literacy depend highly on what the people in those environments are equipped to provide.

In a residential school, or a mainstreamed program with a strong Deaf presence, everyone is either d/hh, more visual-oriented, or have (ideally!) received training and support to meet language requirements. Staff are able to act as appropriate language models, so that ensures communication access and, to some degree, academic success.

Outside of residential schools, though, getting that access to appropriate language models can be much more challenging– not to mention the complexities of using a manual language to impart literacy in a completely separate aural language. That’s if you have access to ASL; more often, what I’ve seen is a mixture of auditory-verbal therapy and manually-coded sign systems, and the results can vary just as much from very, very good to very, very bad. In fact, many cueing parents took up Cued Speech precisely because their local programs or residential schools were not a viable option for one reason or another.

In evaluating different approaches in d/hh education, we need to look at that approach’s overall results, not just specific examples. We can’t cherry-pick outliers to prove our point. That’s probably why those statements at the beginning somewhat annoy me, because in my experience, success at attaining language and literacy through Cued Speech is the norm, not the exception.

In my experience, signing d/hh people who can write or read well tend to be in the minority. On the flip side, cueing d/hh people who have those odd grammatical or spelling flukes– not typos, but more like what you might see from ESL speakers– are the exception; the rest read, write, and talk like native hearing speakers (with varying degrees of a “deaf” voice). I’ve had more than one person tell me that they wouldn’t know I was deaf just by reading my posts.

The studies on Cued Speech that I’ve read bear this out– in fact, I haven’t yet found any studies with negative results on Cued Speech’s use. (I do recall one with “meh” results in a group of hard-of-hearing students, but that’s about it.)

I suspect that you won’t see such consistent results among deaf signers mainly due to these reasons:

  1. The learning curve involved in picking up any manually-coded or signed system, which demands greater commitment and effort from parents and teachers over the long term, so you’re much more likely to see a wider variation in usage and proficiency.
  2. The linguistic and conceptual gap between sign language and spoken language (or even just two different languages). You can patch that gap somewhat, but it’ll never replace incidental learning through full linguistic immersion (and not necessarily just reading and writing).

This isn’t to make Cued Speech out to be a magic bullet that bestows language and literacy the instant someone starts using it for their kid. What it does do is enable one to visually “recode” a language she already knows, without the delay of learning and translating through a second language. In this way, the d/hh kid is put on the same playing field as a hearing child for literacy and language acquisition, so d/hh cuers are much more likely to pick up spoken/written language at the same pace as their hearing counterparts.